A honeybee’s fate is decided at birth. The
larvae develop to become a queen or a worker. If you’re born a queen, you get to rule
the hive. But other insects are more flexible. For example, paper wasps and dinosaur ants
are able to switch role from worker to queen at any point in their life and new research
uncovers the genomic basis of this flexibility. Researchers from the University of Bristol,
the Babraham Institute and the Centre for Genomic Regulation studied the insects’
behaviours to determine their roles. To do this, they fitted the insects with tiny paint
spots or identification tags and observed them in their natural environment.
In the paper wasps, as seen here, the queen is identifiable by behaviours such as shaking
the abdomen and aggression to exert dominance. By looking at the genetic makeup of the insects,
the researchers were able to determine what genetic influences were controlling behaviour.
They found very little difference between the roles, which is surprising given that
hundreds of genes are required to determine the difference between queens and workers
in honeybees. The research suggests that there is no single
master gene determining the role of these wasps and ants. Their behaviour is much more
likely to be driven by a subtle network of genes each exerting little effect compared
to the complex regulatory networks found in honeybees.
In these species there appears to be no molecular commitment to one behaviour or the other.
This open genome keeps them responsive and ready for change.
So you don’t have to be born a queen after all…